On Philosophy

July 1, 2009

The Virtues of Unintuitive Philosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 3:38 am

It is commonly thought that being intuitive, or agreeing with common sense, is a virtue in a philosophical theory. But the opposite is really the case. Philosophy that is intuitive is rarely worth reading; we are only bettered by philosophy that strikes us initially as unintuitive.

With the exception of Jean-Paul Sartre, no one is philosophically perfect. Everyone has places where their views need refinement or revision. It is because of this that we read, and sometimes write, philosophy. A philosophy that tells us that we are completely correct as we are is useless to us. We know that we are far from perfect, and we seek to find out how we are defective. A completely intuitive or a completely commonsense philosophy is saying just that, that we are completely correct. At best such a philosophy is useless, and harmful if we take it seriously, since it erects barriers to revising our mistaken beliefs.

My point is that to be worth reading a piece of philosophy should be at least a little unintuitive. It should challenge what we think to some extent. It is in the places where it challenges us that we have a chance to grow. Where it tells us that we are wrong is where we are presented with a new way of looking at things. And it is through such options that our philosophy improves. Now this is certainly not to say that, every time we find something that challenges what we currently think, we should change our minds. Although if that were the case it would take only two contradictory authors to keep us busy, since after reading the first the second would be a challenging new viewpoint to adopt, and then the first would be again, and so on. But every time we are faced with a challenge that we take seriously it gives us something to think about, and if we are wise enough then we will change our views in response to these challenges exactly when doing so would better our philosophy. Now certainly it is possible to improve without these external challenges, but in their absence I think it would be easy to rest content with a defective philosophy, or simply to be blind to significant alternatives.

Is this the death of intuition and common sense as a standard for philosophy? Probably not. Those who like such standards are rarely blind to the obvious consequence that taking them to be the standard implies that we are always correct in our philosophical judgments. There are ways to deflect the ugly implications of this consequence. One way is to simply deny that it is a consequence. This can be done by claiming that there are conflicts in our unreflective judgments that need ironing out, and thus that we can’t simply accept all of our intuitions as is. I’m going to simply pass over this response since it doesn’t seem plausible to me. First it’s not clear how conflicting judgments are to be corrected. What makes changing one a better idea than changing the other? And, more importantly, it is obvious that this approach aims for mere consistency. But why suppose that every philosophical deficiency gives rise to contradiction? Is it not possible to be consistently mistaken? There is nothing inconsistent with believing that one is under the power of an evil deceiver, but that doesn’t make it a good thing to think.

Another possible response is to accept that our unreflective judgments are basically correct, and to argue that philosophy’s job is not to change them, but to systematize them. I consider this to be a much better response, in part because it has the guts to bite the bullet. Does that make it unintuitive? In any case, it forces us to compare the value of revising our philosophical judgments towards some more perfect ideal to the value of systematizing our judgments. This leads us to the more general question of what the value of systematization is. In general systematization allows us to extend from a few knowns to unknowns. For example, a system of laws allows the law to apply to every possible case, while a simple collection of rulings does not. And I think some would claim that this is what goes on in philosophy, that a system of philosophy is supposed to extend our intuitive judgments into areas where we lack them. But I’m not sure that it is necessary. For example, I have never found myself with a shortage of ethical intuitions, although at times what was clear was only that the act in question was neither completely good nor completely bad. They probably aren’t all the best, and I’m sure that many of them are products of biases rooted in childhood. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Even on more metaphysical matters I find myself with an abundance of intuitions. For example: are dolphins conscious? My unreflective intuition is that they are not. Of course on reflection I begin to doubt this, especially in light of my little experience with them, and then I am not sure any more. But the intuition is there.

Perhaps at the end of the day it becomes a personal matter. I have plenty of intuitions, but little confidence in them. So if you have only a few intuitions but absolute confidence in them perhaps there is nothing a can say to convince you that you shouldn’t make systematization your highest priority. I have an intuition, however, that more people are like me than this hypothetical you.

Now in saying that unintuitive philosophy is the only kind worth reading I don’t mean to erect counter-intuitiveness as a new standard in place of intuitiveness. I am not encouraging taking the most unintuitive philosophy we can find to be the best philosophy. Once we see that a piece of philosophy is unintuitive to some degree it passes this test, and we must resort to other standards to decide between them. Moreover this is a personal test, about what is worth our time, not a guide to stocking library shelves. There is nothing that is intuitive to everyone, and so there is no philosophy that everyone should avoid on that basis (although there are examples of philosophy no one should read for other reasons). And certainly a philosopher cannot be expected to produce something they disagree with just because it is unintuitive. Everyone finds their own theories intuitive on some level, or at least has come to find them intuitive after working with them long enough. Nor should they strive to produce something other people find unintuitive. Like great art, great philosophy is apparently derived from inspiration and not from a formula.

What’s the point of all this then? The point is not to take one standard, intuitiveness, and replace it with another. The point is to highlight that by taking intuitiveness to be a standard we are causing ourselves to be stuck in a philosophical rut. We find what we currently believe to be intuitive, because we are used to it. And if we chose what to believe on the basis of how intuitive we find it to be we will never come to believe anything different. What I desire is not an inversion of this principle, but a suspension of it. And, like Descartes, I think the best way to achieve this suspension may be to create some contrary force to keep it in check. In this case the contrary force is seeing the unintuitive aspects of theories as presenting new options, which are chances for philosophical improvement. In a perfect world this idea meets our natural resistance to unintuitive ideas and negates it in the philosophical sphere.

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